Three weeks ago, tears streamed down my face as a waiter put in front of me a beautiful, fresh, whole fish.
I’d overheard someone say there was Wi-Fi in the restaurant and, having been disconnected for many hours, I had checked my email just as my lunch arrived. There I found the sad news that a friend and former colleague had died suddenly.
I was in a city full of churches, many of them with their doors wide open. Over the next few days, I surprised myself by wandering again and again into a church near my hotel, to sit for a few minutes and look.
I’d gone to Venice to see art, and of course I did. But entering a museum (not to mention getting into the Venice Biennale) was a production – standing in line, buying a ticket, getting offered an audio guide. Not so at the nearby church. I could walk in any time I felt like it.
The church was dedicated to Moses. Behind the altar was a massive sculptural pile-up of boulders, of stone angels holding metal trumpets, of swirling clouds, drapery caught by the wind, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. For reasons I couldn’t explain to myself (and, for once, I didn’t try to), I needed to be there, soaking up that baroque human accomplishment. It was gaudy. It was probably tasteless and definitely capitalistic. I didn’t care.
As Paris emerged into a darker reality last weekend, I was dismayed to learn that the city’s museums had closed for the three days of national mourning that followed the attacks. I understand security concerns. But still, I wish the museums had thrown open their doors and left them open, to anyone, for free.
We can argue, as museum people have for decades, about whether museums have any business acting as temples. Right now, that argument simply doesn’t matter.
In times of grief and stress, a museum can offer a place to focus on what, besides carnage, humans can create.
Sometimes, like now, the value of museums is simply that they exist.
To Museum Directors: Open the doors. Stop charging. Find another model. And, coincidentally, prove what you’re worth.